Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore

Some time ago I cheekily posted the three rules for writing a novel. It produced a spirited discussion on what is a “rule” and what is a “principle,” but by and large there was agreement that these three factors are essential to novels that sell.
Today I’d like to discuss some writing advice writers would do well to ignore.
Where does such advice come from? I have a theory that there is a mad scientist in Schenectady, New York, who cooks up writing advice memes and converts them to an invisible and odorless gas. He then secretly arranges for this gas to seep into critique groups across the land, infecting the members, who then begin to dispense the pernicious doctrine as if it were holy writ.
I now offer the antidote to the gas.
1. Don’t start with the weather
Verdict: Baloney
This meme may have started with Elmore Leonard, who once dashed off a list of “rules” that have become like sacred script for writers. If his advice were, “Don’t open a book with static, flat descriptions” I would absolutely agree.
But here is why the rule, as stated, is baloney: weather can add dimension and tone to the opening disturbance. If you use it in that fashion, weaving it into action, it’s a fine way to begin.
Look at the opening of Bleak House by Dickens, or the short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King. Or the quieter beginning of Ann Lamott’s Blue Shoe. All of them use weather to great effect. Here’s a Western, Hangman’s Territory, from a great writing teacher, Jack Bickham:
   The late spring storm was breaking. To the east, boiling blue-gray clouds moved on, raging toward Fort Gibson. To the west, the sun peered cautiously through a last veil of rain, slanting under the shelf of clouds and making the air a strange, silent bright yellow. The intense, muggy heat of the day had been broken, and now the early evening was cool and damp, and frogs had magically appeared everywhere in the red gumbo of the Indian Nations.
   Eck Jackson threw back the heavy canvas under which he had been waiting. His boots sank into the red mud as he clambered out of his shelter between two rocks and peered at the sky.
If you think of weather as interacting with the character’s mood and emotions, you’re just fine to start with it.
2. Don’t start with dialogue
Verdict: Baloney
Starting with dialogue creates instant conflict, which is what most unpublished manuscripts lack on the first pages. Sometimes this rule is stated as “Don’t start with unattributed dialogue.” Double baloney on rye with mustard. Here’s why: readers have imaginations which are patient and malleable. If they are hooked by dialogue, they will wait several lines before they find who’s talking and lose absolutely nothing in the process.
No answer.
No answer.
“What’s gone with that boy,  I wonder? You TOM!”
No answer.
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room . . . 
        – (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
 “Any thoughts that you’d like to start with?”
“Thoughts on what?”
“Well, on anything. On the incident.”
“On the incident? Yes, I have some thoughts.”
She waited but he did not continue. He had decided before he even got to Chinatown that this would be the way he would be.
       –  (Michael Connelly, The Last Coyote)
“Robert Travis.”
“Mining engineer.”
“Place of residence?”
“Seventh Base, Jovian Development Unit, Ganymede.”
“Reason for visiting Luna?”
“I’m checking on performance of the new Dahlmeyer units in the Mare Nublum fields. We’re thinking of adapting them for use in our Trendart field on Ganymede.”
“I see . . .” The port inspector fumbled through my papers. “Where’s your celemental analysis sheet?”
– (Dwight V. Swain, The Transposed Man)
3. No backstory in the first fifty pages
Verdict: Spam (a step up from baloney)
If backstory is defined as a flashback segment, then this advice has merit. Readers will wait a long time for backstory information if something compelling is happening in front of them. But if you stop the forward momentum of your opening with a longish flashback, you’ve dropped the narrative ball.
However, when backstory refers to bits of a character’s history, then this advice is unsound. Backstory Bits (I call them BBs) are actually essential for bonding us with a character. If we don’t know anything about the characters in conflict, we are less involved in their trouble. (Read Koontz and King, who weave backstory masterfully into their opening pages).
I’ve given writing students a simple guideline: three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphsof backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.
I’ve seen this work wonders for beginning manuscripts.
4. Write what you know
Verdict: Baloney
Sounder advice is this:
Write who you are.
Write what you love.
Write what you NEED to know.
5. Don’t ever follow any writing advice
Verdict: Stinky baloney
There may be a few literary savants out there who can do this thing naturally, without thinking about technique or craft. And those three people can form their own group and meet for Martinis.
Every other writer can benefit from putting in some time studying their craft. I’ve heard some writers say they don’t want to do that for fear of “stifling” the purity of their work. Some of them get a contract and their books comes out in a nice edition that sell 500 copies. And then they get bitter and start appearing at writer’s conferences raging how there is no such thing as structure and you’ve all wasted your money coming here, and you should just go home and write. (This has actually happened on several occasions that I know of).
So here is my final bit of advice for today: don’t be that kind of writer. 

24 thoughts on “Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore

  1. Yeah….what he said.

    Good thing I hate bologna…had so much of it as a kid it makes me sick these days, therefore I should be safe, what?

  2. Jim–When we begin writing, most of us are so anxious to be successful that we’d wear our shoes on the wrong feet and walk backwards if we thought it would help our cause. Only after we have some experience do we begin to venture past the rules and principles we’ve heard. Thanks for the examples and for some good advice (no sarcasm intended).

  3. I love this post!

    I was just thinking about bad writing advice the other day.

    The weather opening is a perfect example. The advice is meant to discourage flat, descriptive openings that have no connection to the story or character. As you’ve pointed out, there’s plenty of weather openings that work fine.

    There’s lots of advice out there, disguising itself as koan-like pearls of wisdom, that writers follow blindly. I had a friend who tied herself up in knots because her book opened with a dream. “Everyone” says that’s a bad idea. “Everyone” says that would send her book straight into the rejection pile.

    “Everyone” was wrong.

    She opened with a dream, sure, but it connected to the story and didn’t refute what you learned about the characters. It actually enhanced the story by adding in a layer of foreshadowing.

    She’s currently slated for a February publication.

    The next time I get into an argument with someone about following writing advice blindly versus figuring out what it’s actually trying to say, I’ll send them to this post.

    Or, you know, go find that mad scientist in Schenectady and make him stop.

  4. I like all of these. One thing about weather reports in the beginning, I don’t like to read them as a lead in unless it’s a short story.

    It was a dark, stormy night….

    The sun beat down on the desert….

    The moon glistened on the front lawn…

    I don’t know why it bothers me with a full length novel. Maybe with a short story, I’ve come to expect the lead in to be of some importance to the overall story. With a novel I don’t exactly expect that.

  5. Personally, I’m a big fan of the strength of weather to enhance a story. Sure, you can be guilty of using it in such a way that it flattens the story, but it can also be quite powerful.

    And some of us are just more keyed in to the natural elements than others.

    BK Jackson

  6. Great advice, as always, Jim! I like this guideline you gave about backstory in the first chapters:
    “three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages. You may use them together, or space them apart. Then three paragraphs of backstory in the next ten pages, together or apart.”
    I think I’ll save that and pass it along to my clients.

    Thanks again for your pearls of wisdom! I hope your workshop at the Writer’s Digest Conference in Hollywood went well! Sorry I had to cancel so I missed it!

  7. Just so Basil knows, I used to peel off the skin around the baloney and eat it all by itself. That was always the tastiest part for me.

    How does that morsel of information relates to writing? Peel off the advice you find most helpful, I suppose.

  8. Every time someone says “never start a story with the weather” I remind them of the opening line of A WRINKLE IN TIME (a classic and winner of numerous children’s book awards). Not only does Ms. L’Engle open with the weather, but it’s a cliche to boot. When she wrote it, that exact opening had been done before. Twice.

    And it totally works.

    Not to mention it’s a great tongue-in-cheek writerly jab in the ribs.

    Now whenever someone says “but, THEY say not to write X” or “THEY say Y won’t work,” I just shrug. Let “THEY” sit around making silly rules. It’s our job as writers to write what works, whether it follows the so-called rules or not.

    I always tell my students to learn the rules and then break them. On purpose. Breaking a writing rule out of laziness or ignorance is a problem. Breaking it on purpose to get a specific response from the reader? Right on!

    After all, where would the rules be if there were no exceptions?

  9. Of course the only REAL rule is that if it work, it works. The “starting with the weather” example is perfect: so many amateurs do it wrong, but you identified the way to make it right.

    The most memorable pieces are the ones that break the “rules” but make it work anyway.

  10. “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rain came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

    Anyone who ever reads my comments knows what novel that line opens. I, for one, don’t need Atlanta to burn on the first page. However, like Jim said, keep the backstory to a light sprinkle (I like that formula and will remember it well).

    I am getting a little tired of first-person-present-tense YAs that are all dark and frantic and frenzied for the sake of being frenzied. A touch of set up isn’t a bad thing.

    As always, I love my Sunday writing advice fix!


  11. If memory serves, Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Bradbury, starts off with an approaching storm and a crazy guy selling lightning rods. It’s symbolic of the whole rest of the plot, and IMO, it’s brilliant.

    And sometimes starting off with dialogue is a great opener. I recently read a hook in a contest that started out more or less, “I can’t figure out why you’re not dead yet.” It hooked me!

  12. Couldn’t agree with you more.

    Any advice must be taken with a grain of salt, especially advice that claims to be a rule. Everything pertaining to writing should be filtered through common sense, story purpose and emotional impact on readers. If it accomplishes those, it can stay, even if ten “rules” say it shouldn’t.

    Thanks for the sharp reminder. 😉

  13. Most of these “rules” have a reason which makes sense within their own context, ie addressing some genuine and serious writing issue.
    So starting a story off with a flat boring list of shipping areas with windspeeds, visibility and precipitation is a bad idea.
    Trouble is these things get generalized and turned into absolute rules.
    To quote ArchChancellor Ridcully, “Not so much rules, more guidelines.”

  14. I love this post! It made me think about “they.” I keep hearing that “they” don’t like this and “they” like this. But who are “they”? A mystical group of editors, publishers, agents like gods on Mount Olympus governing the lives of writers? Whoever “they” are, I wish “they” would quit haunting me!

  15. Jim,
    Just finished Plot and Structure. Thank you for writing it. I’m going to participate in the Novel in November program. I thought I had a good plot line until I read your book. Many changes. Worse, it’s hard to hold it all in my head for another nine or so days.

    Again Thank you.

  16. Over the years, I’ve come to the following conclusion regarding writing advice and writing rules”

    The advice is only as good as it helps you sit down and actually write.

    If you hear something — no matter how good it seems or who it comes from — if it hinders you from actually writing, then forget it.

    The advice might be sound, and you might realize it’s importance later on, but either you’re not ready to hear it or it’s not said in a way that’s helpful. There are a million ways to get the job done, so you have to find your own way. Writing might be the only occupation in which the end does in fact justify the means.

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